BRUNSWICK — In the 20 towns that make up the Saco River watershed, and in hundreds of other Maine communities, the next few weeks could easily be called “Hold Your Breath Season.” We will all be paying attention to the work of the Maine River Flow Advisory Commission – and looking out the window to see if the river is rising.

My company, Deering Lumber, was founded in 1866 at our Springs Island location in Biddeford, which happens to be in the middle of the Saco River. Many years at this time, we move our stock up off the ground and prepare for floods. Some years the river flows through our main warehouse buildings, in one end and out the other.

Unfortunately, flooding on the Saco and other rivers across Maine is a much bigger problem for individual property owners, businesses, communities, public infrastructure and taxpayers.

Nationally, floods have become our most frequent natural disaster. The National Flood Insurance Program says flood damage claims averaged $4 billion per year between 2003 and 2012.

According to the program’s calculator, a 2,000-square-foot home or business with 1 foot of flooding will incur an estimated $52,000 in damages. The need to replace washed-out roads, bridges and culverts and repair damage to public buildings and infrastructure means high costs for communities and taxpayers as well.

We are very familiar with these costs in Maine. The Patriots Day flood in April 2007 hit central and southern Maine. York County was hit hardest, with 8.5 inches of rain over three days on top of a 6- to 12-inch snowpack. Two Mainers lost their lives. We incurred $45 million in private damages as well as the cost of repairing public infrastructure.

In April 2008, the St. John River in Aroostook County flooded, causing the evacuation of 600 people and extensive damage to 140 homes. Furthermore, data tells us that Maine is experiencing more frequent and intense storms, increasing the risk that flooding events will become more common in the future.

As we hold our breath for the next few weeks, it seems like a good time to ask, “Is there anything we can do to reduce the risks and costs of flooding?” We can’t control Mother Nature, but there are some very common-sense, cost-effective ways we can reduce the risks to our communities.

I serve as chairman of the board of The Nature Conservancy in Maine. The Nature Conservancy is deeply involved on the ground, in partnership with businesses and communities all over Maine, rigorously studying issues like this.

One concept our group is working on is the idea of “natural defenses.” When it comes to reducing flood risks, “natural defenses” means thinking of the land around rivers, lakes and streams as well as flood plains as a natural buffer – like a huge sponge. When we have major storms, healthy natural systems are able to absorb and hold a lot of excess water, releasing it slowly through the summer.

To take the “natural defenses” idea beyond theory, The Nature Conservancy worked with the University of Southern Maine to produce an economic study.

Charles Colgan and a team of researchers did an analysis simulating the costs of flooding in three York County watersheds versus the costs of protecting the natural water infrastructure in those areas. The report (available at concluded that $15 million in land conservation investments could save as much as $275 million in flood damages over the next 30 years.

As a businessperson, I think that sounds like a pretty good deal. As a taxpayer, I would much rather have public officials working to make the $15 million solution a reality – and avoiding the $275 million cost.

Protecting our natural water infrastructure is a smart, cost-effective way to reduce the risk of flooding in communities across Maine. We need to do everything we can to protect and preserve these “natural defenses” along the Saco and other Maine rivers.

We should not, as some are currently proposing in the Maine Legislature (L.D. 467), dramatically reduce protected areas along the Saco River Corridor or anywhere else in Maine. These natural buffers provide a vital service to our communities and will save individuals, businesses and taxpayers a lot of money for years to come.